Who decides what the fundamentals are?

(By chris the cynic)

I’m not Christian.  I come from a largely Christian culture, my morality can largely be described as Christian, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual leader is Fred Clark at Slacktivist.  (I may not believe his religion is correct, but on contemporary matters I have a feeling he’s got a better idea of what God would want than I do.)  But I’m not Christian.

Depending on your personal views on religious commentary, that fact may be quite important to you so I figured I’d get it out of the way.

Ok, so, onto the point. We talk about “fundamentalists”, in part probably because the name has been used in the past (TRADITION!) and “fundies” is a fun word. “Fundamentalists” is a known word, it’s an understood word, it’s a word that we’re not likely to change any time in the future. But it is not some magical gateway to truth, and I think that sometimes we forget that.

The word is self chosen (more than 90 years ago) by a certain Christian group, allowing the group to claim that it was the one sticking true to the fundamentals of the faith while others were leaving them behind. It has since been applied to various other groups and taken on a very different meaning. However, the word still contains the original claim. Fundamentalist. They’re the ones with the Fundamentals.

Except… not.

I’ve never known a religious group that didn’t think it was sticking with the fundamentals of their faith. That’s where most religious disagreements take place: what is it that really matters? What is more fundamental? When things conflict or seem to conflict, what does one fall back on? What are, basically, the fundamentals?

Recently I saw someone online using a neat bit of casuistry* that basically went like this:

You’ve just said that these fundamentalists are bad. Fundamentalists follow the fundamentals. If the fundamentals of a thing are bad then the thing is bad. Therefore since these fundamentalists are bad the entire religion is bad.

It wasn’t laid out quite like that (it called back to other places and so forth) but that was basically the argument. Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals. People Who Follow Fundamentals are bad → Thing Itself is bad.

I don’t think many people would quibble with the idea that a thing is bad if its fundamentals are bad. But Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals is unsound reasoning. “Fundamentalists” is just a name. It’s like assuming that everyone named Christopher has Jesus on their back (Christopher means Christ Bearer) and then concluding that Winnie the Pooh is a horrible deception because Christopher Robin isn’t bearing Jesus in it (and isn’t a Robin EITHER!)

Assuming that fundamentalists follow the fundamentals because their name indicates they do is like assuming that anyone with the name Christopher Robin is a Christ carrying bird (of what type varies depending on the type of Robin, but we can at least say a small bird) because that’s what the name Christopher Robin indicates.

Except that’s not what names indicate. Names are identifiers not definitions.

Having the name “Fundamentalist” no more gives you claim to the fundamentals than having the name “King” gives you claim to the throne.

Which brings us to the question of the post. Who determines what the fundamentals actually are? People tend to think they know. People tend to disagree.

Here’s a different question: Why are there so many non-Jewish Christians? Jesus stayed in the Jewish community. He was known to hang out with outsiders and pariahs and such, but they were all fellow Jews. How did all these gentiles get in the religion?

The Bible has an answer. It’s given in the Book of Acts. Jesus has returned to the home office, the disciples are left on earth to fend for themselves. Peter is about to get a request to preach the gospel because someone had a vision saying he should get more info on this new religion from Peter, but the person making the request for Peter to come is a gentile. Peter would say no.

Before the messenger arrives God sends a second vision, this time to Peter. A divine revelation.

And so Peter goes.

He acknowledges that it defies old law, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” That’s New International Version. King James: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The version that Fred links to (New Revised Standard Version, I think): “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Pick your favorite Bible and look it up: Acts 10:28.

Christianity was never going to get this many believers if it stayed a sub-sect of Judaism. Now the vast majority of Christians are gentiles.

From an outsider’s perspective a divine revelation to one of the apostles which resulted in almost, but not quite, all modern day Christians being Christians seems pretty damn fundamental.

I also get the impression that Fred Clark finds it quite fundamental. He’s got an insider’s perspective.

But I know that not all Christians find this verse fundamental because they do call people profane and unclean.

And so who gets final say? Who do we trust to say either, “This is a fundamental part of Christianity,” or, “Screw it, those people are totally abominations and that’s what’s fundamental”?

I’ve asked the question, but in truth I don’t think there is an answer. Unless all members of a group get together and determine what the fundamentals for membership are, I don’t think we get to say, “Well the fundamentals …”

If outsiders such as myself and the person who made the comment that inspired me to write this post decide what the fundamentals are, we are appointing ourselves more definitive speakers on the subject than –in the case of Christianity– almost, but not quite, 2000 years of both scholars and others who devoted themselves to the matter (including Jesus and those who knew him.)

If outsiders decide the fundamentals of Islam then it is a shorter period, but still about 1400 years and, more importantly, it’s still being an asshole.

For insiders I think it’s up to each person to determine for themselves what the most important parts are. And this goes for much more than just religion. The question of winning or losing vs. how you play the game is one that every sport (see: Chess) has to wrestle with.

* I know it’s not the most common word but sophists get a bad rap (2400 years of smear campaign will do that to a group) and I’d prefer not to be using the pejorative “sophistry”. Especially not while I’m thinking about how one shouldn’t judge a group (especially one whose membership is determined by self identification) by its worst members.


16 thoughts on “Who decides what the fundamentals are?

  1. Firedrake January 21, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I think it would be fair to say that fundamentalists claim to be following the fundamentals, and therefore if they are bad then the specific things they claim are important are probably bad too (at the very least, it would indicate some cautionwhen incorporating them into one’s own belief system). For example, the habit of trying to justify every little thing with a biblical quote (and calling one’s interpretation “literal”).

    Of course one has to consider any divergence between what the group says it thinks is important and what its members’ actions indicate is important to them.

    I’m not aware of any group which considers itself Jewish and Christian and regards all those gentile Christians as scum, but it probably exists because, hey, people.

  2. christhecynic January 21, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    The big thing is that to “not call anyone profane or unclean,” is basically a general moratorium on bigotry.

    It comes up specifically with regard to non-straight people because Biblical arguments of uncleanness are used to justify the bigotry, but racism, misogyny, bigotry targeted at all non-cis groups, religious bigotry, and so forth all involve calling people profane or unclean to some degree or other.

  3. Redwood Rhiadra January 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    It’s not that Fundamentalist Christianity follows the fundamentals – it follows “The Fundamentals”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals – although I suspect most (lay) Fundamantalists have never actually read them.

  4. hf January 21, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    I don’t want to insult casuistry or case-based reasoning, because we can’t spell out all the principles of morality. At least, every attempt to do so (thus far) would kill us all or guarantee dystopia if we gave it to a powerful AI that doesn’t fill in details the way most humans would. (As for telling it to follow the Bible in particular – I may make that a separate comment.)

    Maybe when you mean something other than bad logic, you can use the mathematical term for a deliberately strained or unintended interpretation of somebody’s statements: “non-standard model”.

  5. Lonespark January 22, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Ohhhhh. Thanks for the explanation , Redwood, Rhiadra! I assume my pastor grandpa read them, and mostly didn’t agree… A lot of anti-Catholicism in there, yeesh. And no woman authors? (Hard to tell with initials all over the place…)

  6. Lonespark January 22, 2014 at 11:00 am

    And I would also consider Fred Clark a spiritual leader. Maybe not so much lately, since I don’t read his site as much. But if I need to sum up my spiritual worldview, it’s kinda, “Fred Clark…with considerably less Jesus. And more pagan ritual, but that’s unimportant to my spiritual ethics for the most part…)

  7. Lonespark January 22, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Ohhh, I missed her the first time. Now I want to know more about Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis.

  8. hf January 22, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    So, on to the substance of the post: if we want to talk about the Bible rather than Christianity, there can be no fundamentals because the Bible is a near-useless mass of contradictions. Let’s look at how people used it during the US Civil War.

    The anti-slavery side would of course say that the general theme or direction of the Bible points toward love and respect for the underdog. This is a somewhat traditional position. Augustine said something very much like it (as did Paul). But if we go back and look at the details, we find him writing that we must be careful not to love the wrong things, or to love them more than their status in his hierarchy warrants. It seems clear why he had to say this: he defended and promoted the claim that God will torture humans for eternity, which disproves love under the standard English meaning of the term.

    While the Bible has no coherent doctrine of Hell, it does have a strong and repetitious theme of disproportionate or arbitrary punishment. Maybe some book included in the tome is free of this (Philemon?) but certainly not the Gospels, nor Revelation, nor the book of Acts, nor most of Paul’s work, nor the later work attributed to Paul. I see no “direction” or “trajectory” moving against this until we leave the Bible and look at more secular sources. So Augustine based his views on something real in the text.

    Likewise, if we entertain the possibility that God sent a lion to kill some random bystander for not striking His prophet with a sword on command (1 Kings 20:35-43), I see no way to rule out a command to keep American slavery going.

    The people claiming to find an ethical message in all this may be cherry-picking on a different and better level than the people who look for a verse they can use mentioning the topic they care about. (For anyone just joining us, that would include the defenders of slavery.) But ultimately it seems just as arbitrary and just as unlikely to reflect the wishes of any deity. I could just as easily argue that the central message of the Bible is, “You must always follow divine commands, and you can’t really tell where divine authority lies. So eat, drink, and be merry.” Very Zen.

    (Oh, and an inhuman AI programmed to believe in a biblical God and do his will might put humans in increasingly bizarre and painful situations to see if our implied magical connection with Him will actually manifest – just to try and get clarification from Him. Or it might control our minds to make us believe and then put us all in stasis so we can’t sin.)

  9. froborr January 23, 2014 at 9:36 am

    While the Bible has no coherent doctrine of Hell, it does have a strong and repetitious theme of disproportionate or arbitrary punishment. Maybe some book included in the tome is free of this

    Ruth? Esther, depending on whether you consider death of the perpetrator a proportionate punishment for attempted genocide?

    You are making the mistake–common among people in Christian-influenced societies, for some reason–of thinking that people’s religions are defined by their sacred texts. While said texts certainly have an influence, the majority of religious behavior and belief comes from tradition, including traditions of textual interpretation. In addition, IIRC Biblical inerrancy is solely a belief of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist traditions, which are the minority of Christians; most believe some degree of interpretation (cherry-picking, if you must) is necessary in order to filter out the bits worth following in the present day from the bits which only applied in past culture or which erroneous.

    To which you may very well ask, why bother with the Bible? To which I counter: Why not? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that cherry-picking the Bible produces worse results than any other method of figuring out morality–and certainly it produces better average results than, say, cherry-picking the works of Ayn Rand–so who cares?

    As far as programming an AI to judge people based on the Bible, check out Greg Bear’s novel Strength of Stones, it is set in the aftermath of exactly that mistake.

  10. christhecynic January 23, 2014 at 10:18 am

    The Fundamentals, as opposed to the fundamentals, that Redwood discusses were a sort of counter culture backlash move. It was, “So many other Christians think/are starting to think this, we must oppose.”

    Biblical innarancy is also a sort of splinter movement. A LOUD one, but it’s not really as popular as it seems. As has been well established the whole PMD thing is relatively recent (not as recent as The Fundamentals). The non-Catholic opposition to abortion is turning 50 in a few years. The American Evangelical opposition contraceptives might be one year old now.

    A lot of stuff people assume goes with the Bible really just got tacked on later. But that influences how we read.

    And that can be a problem.

    If someone says, “A guy walked into a bar…” and we’re off and running about what that means about both the local economy and religious beliefs as well as the guy’s personal ability to spend then we’re sort of missing the point and we’ll never get the joke.

    Which becomes a really big problem when stories are meant to describe some bigger truth and not historical details.

    Hell, forget bigger truth, it’s a problem when the point of the story is anything other than the details. “Wait, all of these people died because why?”

    “They’re not people, they’re hypothetical set pieces with no real existence whose ‘death’ did not hurt them because the point of the story is an idea, not… for the love of fucking god it’s an action movie staring John McClane, the point, the only point, is that good triumphs over evil and explosions are pretty provided they don’t hurt anyone real. By focusing on extra number 23 you’re ruining it for everyone.”

  11. christhecynic January 23, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Consider the story of Demeter and Persephone.

    That story has a lot of message to it. It’s about how much a mother can love her daughter, it’s about how an independent goddess like Demeter who was following a matriarchal family structure was worked into Zeus’s patriarchal hierarchy, it’s about how the Eleusinian Mysteries got started, it is, to a far, far lesser extent, about the seasons.

    It is not meant to be taken as a sign that Demeter has no problem killing off everyone and everything so fear her because she is the end of all of us if she just gets a little pissed off.

    The potential destruction of the world is more to say, “Love so great,” than anything about the potential destruction of the world.

    Similarly, in Doctor Who the line, “There isn’t a little boy born who wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” isn’t meant to indicate that all little boys are villains who will kill us all if they think it will save mummy. It’s meant to indicate that love for one’s mother can be very strong indeed.

    In truth only a Sith Lord would stop at nothing to save mummy, everyone else has limits.

  12. hf January 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    The passage from 1 Kings seems meant to say, “Hooray for clever deception,” with a side order of, “Always do what the recognized religious authorities say.”

    Why not use the Bible? Because anything good in it probably made its way into Harry Potter, and now we also have “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.”

  13. froborr January 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    But again: If one person, anywhere, ever has successfully* used the Bible as a guide, cherry picked or no, then it is the case that the Bible can be used successfully as a moral guide. Why would you take away the moral guide of a decent person just because an asshole can use it too?

    *Success being here defined as “behaving like a decent person according the more-or-less consensus norms of the Slacktiverse community.”

  14. hf January 24, 2014 at 1:58 am

    What am I taking away? Do you contend that this hypothetical person’s “moral guide” requires false beliefs about the text or its origin, and that by pointing out the facts above I’m destroying someone’s decency?

    If these people have as clear a view of (the rest of) reality as you want to imply, then why wouldn’t they metaphorically continue to live by the Ender books inside their heads, while admitting that Orson Scott Card wrote a very different series?

  15. froborr January 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    You seem to be under the impression that there is a singular “true” method of interpreting a text, which is utter nonsense. Nothing in my argument requires that people hold false beliefs on matters of fact, merely that they hold differing beliefs on normative questions.

    Unless I am greatly misunderstanding your argument, your goal is to convince people that the Bible should not be used as a moral guide. I am questioning why you would do that when there are people who do successfully use it as a moral guide.

  16. Lonespark January 24, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Why not use the Bible? Because anything good in it probably made its way into Harry Potter

    I don’t agree, but I wouldn’t mind reading a post making that case.

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